Alan Watson Featherstone, Founder of Trees for Life, writes about his experiences out in the Caledonian Forest, and about his work for the charity.


Return to Inchvuilt Wood

Heather (Calluna vulgaris) in flower, with bracken (Pteridium aquilinum) changing colour amongst Scots pines (Pinus sylvestris) in Inchvuilt Wood in Glen Strathfarrar in early September.

Heather (Calluna vulgaris) in flower, with bracken (Pteridium aquilinum) changing colour amongst Scots pines (Pinus sylvestris) in Inchvuilt Wood in Glen Strathfarrar in early September.

The end of August and early September is the peak time for common heather (Calluna vulgaris) to be flowering in the Highlands, and I usually aim to do a couple of days of photography of this seasonal phenomenon at different locations each year. This summer I decided to make a return visit to the Inchvuilt Wood in Glen Strathfarrar, which I’d first been to in 2012, but hadn’t gone back to since then. So it was that I set off there on the first Sunday in September, hoping to find the heather at its peak of blossom…

Old Scots pine stump at the edge of Loch Beannacharan, with a perfect reflection of the woodland on its southwest slopes in its early morning mirror-stil waters.

Old Scots pine stump at the edge of Loch Beannacharan, with a perfect reflection of the woodland on its southwest slopes in the early morning mirror-still waters.

Strathfarrar is a long glen and it’s quite a distance to get to Inchvuilt, so I had to resist the temptation to stop at some of my favourite places along the way, especially in the woodland at Culligran. Driving further on, to the Braulen Estate, I came to Loch Beannacharan, where there were stunning reflections in the perfectly still water and I had to stop, to enjoy the beautiful early morning views. In particular, there were some very nice cloud formations mirrored in the loch, which were just begging to be photographed …

Here the pattern of the blue sky and shape of the clouds in the sky seemed to reflect the curve of the loch shore.

Here the pattern of the blue sky and shape of the clouds in the sky seemed to reflect the curve of the loch shore.

These pine stumps beside the loch, which show clear evidence of having been cut, indicate that there must have been more forest here in the relatively recent past.

These pine stumps beside the loch, which show clear evidence of having been cut, indicate that there must have been more forest here in the relatively recent past.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another view of the pine stumps beside Loch Beannacharan, with the clouds reflected in the perfectly still water.

A different view of the pine stumps beside Loch Beannacharan, with the clouds reflected in the water.

 

 

Another view of the woodland on the south side of Strathfarrar reflected in Loch Beannacharan.

Another view of the woodland on the south side of Strathfarrar reflected in Loch Beannacharan.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There were plenty of overgrazed young alder trees (Alnus glutinosa) beside the loch, just waiting for a chance to grow.

There were plenty of overgrazed young alder trees (Alnus glutinosa) beside the loch, just waiting for a chance to grow.

The beauty of the scene was marred somewhat by the presence of a number of old stumps of Scots pines (Pinus sylvestris) beside the shore of the loch. They bore evidence of having been cut and illustrated that there must have been much more forest in this part of Strathfarrar in the not too distant past. Such stumps can persist for several decades or even a century after the tree dies, because the resin in the pines’ wood acts as a natural preservative. These ones certainly looked like they’d been dead for quite a long time.

However, there were also signs of hope as I found an abundance of young alder trees (Alnus glutinosa) growing near the edge of the loch. These were clearly being held in check by overgrazing from the red deer (Cervus elaphus) population in the glen, as they were all being kept at the height of the surrounding vegetation and in many cases had spread laterally, because they couldn’t make any vertical growth.

Some more young alders at the bottom of this photograph contrast with the pine stumps at the edge of the loch.

Some more young alders at the bottom of this photograph contrast with the pine stumps at the edge of the loch.

It wouldn’t take much reduction in the grazing pressure to allow some of these alders to grow successfully, and that would be a major step in the restoration of the riparian woodland beside the loch. This habitat is a crucial one, as the leaves from the trees fall in the water and provide food for aquatic invertebrates such as caddisfly and stonefly larvae, and those in turn are food for dragonfly nymphs and fish such as brown trout (Salmo trutta) and Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar).

Berry-laden rowan tree (Sorbus aucuparia) and young alder trees beside Loch Beannacharan.

Berry-laden rowan tree (Sorbus aucuparia) and young alder trees beside Loch Beannacharan.

In fact, just a little further along the shore of the loch there was a small patch of larger trees, including some rowans (Sorbus aucuparia) that were covered in berries. The young alders beside them were larger, and almost above the height that deer could reach, thereby indicating that the balance between excessive herbivory and successful tree regeneration was near the tipping point in favour of the latter in this area.

Downy birch trees (Betula pubescens) and heather (Calluna vulgaris) reflected in Loch Beannacharan.

Downy birch trees (Betula pubescens) and heather reflected in Loch Beannacharan.

Looking across the loch to the other side, I could see that there were young downy birches (Betula pubescens) growing successfully just above the shoreline, so that was another positive sign.

Closer view of the rowan tree, showing how heavily laden it was with berries.

Closer view of the rowan tree, showing how heavily laden it was with berries.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’d noticed in the spring that this was a great year for rowan flowers, so I’d been anticipating that late summer would be an abundant season for rowan berries, and this tree was an excellent example of just that.

Massed berries on the rowan tree beside Loch Beannacharan.

Massed berries on the rowan tree beside Loch Beannacharan.

Closer view of some of the berries on the rowan tree.

Closer view of some of the berries on the rowan tree.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Backlit leaves and clusters of berries on the rowan tree.

Backlit leaves and clusters of berries on the rowan tree.

 

 

In this closer view of the rowan leaves and berries, some of the leaves in the lower right have clearly been eaten by invertebrates.

In this closer view of the rowan leaves and berries, some of the leaves in the lower right have clearly been eaten by invertebrates.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Scotch argus butterflies (Erebia aethiops) resting on the fronds of some bracken (Pteridium aquilinum).

Scotch argus butterflies (Erebia aethiops) resting on the fronds of some bracken (Pteridium aquilinum).

Mindful of my intention of getting to Inchvuilt, I drove further west in the glen, and then set out on foot, crossing the Farrar River on a small footbridge and heading up towards the wood. On my way I came upon a patch of bracken (Pteridium aquilinum), and as I reached it, several butterflies took off. Some of them settled again on nearby fronds and I was able to get a closer look, recognising them as the Scotch argus (Erebia aethiops). This is a fairly common species in northwest Scotland and adults are on the wing from late July until early September.

Scotch argus butterfly (Erebia aethiops) on a bracken frond.

Scotch argus butterfly (Erebia aethiops) on a bracken frond.

Perhaps fitting for the time of the year, these butterflies looked rather faded in their coloration, and some of them had ragged wing edges – both indicating that they had been adults for some time and perhaps were near the end of their lives.

Closer view of one of the Scotch argus butterflies (Erebia aethiops). The ragged edge of its right forewing and relatively faded colours are indications of its age.

Closer view of one of the Scotch argus butterflies (Erebia aethiops). The ragged edge of its right forewing and relatively faded colours are indications of its age.

 

 

 

 

 

 

This species apparently occurs in distinct colonies that can be quite large, and I saw at least a dozen of them in this small patch of bracken.

In the bracken patch with the butterflies I came across this mystery egg mass that I didn't recognise.

In the bracken patch with the butterflies I came across this mystery egg mass that I didn’t recognise.

While I was watching the butterflies, I noticed a number of pale cream shapes on some of the bracken fronds, and on some grass stems in amongst the bracken. I didn’t know what these were, but assumed they must be egg masses of some sort. I wondered if they might be from the Scotch argus butterflies, because their location coincided with where they were? I took a number of photos of the egg masses and then later at home I did some searching on the Internet to see if I could find out what they were from. I quickly discovered they weren’t the eggs of the Scotch argus, as those look completely different. I couldn’t find any likely candidates, so I sent out emails to several of my entomologist contacts to see if they could help. One of those, Graham Rotheray, recognised them as being the massed pupal cocoons of a braconid wasp.

There were several of these egg masses on the fronds in this patch of bracken.

There were several of these egg masses on the fronds in this patch of bracken.

Braconids are parasitoid wasps that lay their eggs in the caterpillars of moths and butterflies. The larvae develop inside their host and then emerge to form the mass of pupal cocoons, which is what I had seen on the bracken and grass stems. Although there was no sign in this instance of what their host had been, I wondered if it was the caterpillars of some of the Scotch argus’s. However, when I suggested that to Roy Leverton, an expert on caterpillars, he said that the caterpillars of the Scotch argus are very small at this time of year, and would not have been able to support a brood of braconid larvae like this. Roy suggested that the brown silver-line moth (Petrophora chlorosata) could possibly have been the host instead, but that is only a speculation, and the identify of the species the braconids used to breed in will have to remain a mystery.

View eastwards across western end of Loch a' Mhuilidh. The fenced area in the distance is one of the exclosures established for natural regeneration of the forest in this part of Strathfarrar.

View eastwards across western end of Loch a’ Mhuillidh. The fenced area in the distance is one of the exclosures established for natural regeneration of the forest in this part of Strathfarrar.

Continuing on, the ground began to rise and I got a good view back eastwards, across Loch a’ Mhuillidh, which lies to the west of Loch Beannacharan. On the far, southeastern side of the loch I could see one of the fenced exclosures established for natural regeneration of the forest in this part of the glen. There were good numbers of young trees, mostly birch, growing successfully there, and the exclosure was also distinctive for the prevalence of heather inside it. In the absence of excessive grazing, the natural ecological process of succession from grassland (the predominant vegetation type in the open areas of this glen and most of the northwest Highlands) to dry heath, typified by common heather, takes place.

Scots pines (Pinus sylvestris) in Inchvuilt Wood.

Scots pines (Pinus sylvestris) in Inchvuilt Wood. Note the close-cropped blaeberries (Vaccinium myrtillus) and heather, due to overgrazing by red deer.

After a quick break for lunch, I reached the wood itself, which consists of an extensive stand of old Scots pines (Pinus sylvestris) stretching across the hillside. The western section of the woodland forms part of another exclosure that has been fenced for natural regeneration, but in the eastern part, where I was, deer are still free to roam at will, so there are no young trees and the ground vegetation is largely suppressed to a few inches in height. This was readily apparent in the size of both the heather plants and the blaeberries (Vaccinium myrtillus) amongst the trees.

Bark pattern on one of the Scots pines (Pinus sylvestris).

Bark pattern on one of the Scots pines (Pinus sylvestris).

Another section of bark on the same Scots pine.

Another section of bark on the same Scots pine.

As soon as I got amongst the pines, I noticed interesting bark patterns on some of them, so I stopped to take a few photographs of those.  Pine bark is a favourite subject of mine, and I wrote a blog especially about it last year. On this day, some of the bark was bright reddish-orange, indicating that it had been recently revealed by other outer layers flaking off – over time the exposed bark turns a duller more greyish colour.

There was some heather (Calluna vulgaris) flowering at the base of this pine's trunk, while its bark was mostly covered in heather rags lichen (Hypogymnia physodes).

There was some heather (Calluna vulgaris) flowering at the base of this pine’s trunk, while its bark was mostly covered in heather rags lichen (Hypogymnia physodes).

I enjoyed looking closely at the bark on several of the pines, as well as the pattern of the lichens growing on them and the way that some heather was flowering next to the trees, with the purple flowers providing a pleasing colour contrast to that of the bark.

Detail of some of the pine bark. The section in the centre is about to flake off, and will reveal brighter reddish-orange bark underneath.

Detail of some of the pine bark. The loose piece in the centre is about to flake off, and will reveal brighter, reddish-orange bark underneath.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This dramatic looking fungus at the base of one of the pines is dyer's mazegill (Phaeolus schweinitzii).

When I looked a little closer I realised it was a  fungus – the dyer’s mazegill (Phaeolus schweinitzii).

While I was looking at the pine trunks, an unusual orange circular shape at the base of one caught my eye. Appearing almost like a target from a sideshow game, I wasn’t sure from a distance what it was – it could almost have been something artificial.

This remarkable shape at the base of one of pines stood out for me as an unusual sight in the forest.

This remarkable shape at the base of one of pines stood out for me as an unusual sight in the forest.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Closer view of the dyer's mazegill fungus (Phaeolus schweinitzii) at the base of the pine.

Closer view of the dyer’s mazegill fungus (Phaeolus schweinitzii) at the base of the pine.

When I reached the tree itself, I saw that it was a fungus, and I suspected immediately that it was the dyer’s mazegill (Phaeolus schweinitzii), a polypore fungus that has been used for a long time as a source of colour for natural dyes. I’ve seen this species on pines in Glen Affric before, but always fruiting on the trunk of the trees, whereas this one was emerging from the roots, right where they joined the tree’s trunk.

There in fact several of the dyer's mazegill fungi at the base of this pine. Two can be seen here, while there were another two on the other side of the tree.

There were in fact several of the dyer’s mazegill fungi at the base of this pine. Two can be seen here, while there were another two on the other side of the tree.

Back at home later on, I was able to ascertain to my own satisfaction that this was the correct identification for the fungus, and this was also confirmed by Liz Holden, the mycologist who helps me with fungal IDs. Dyer’s mazegill occurs throughout Europe, Asia and North America and causes stem rot on conifers, including pines. It is unusual amongst polypores for growing out of tree roots – most of the others fruit as brackets on the trunks.

Remembering my original purpose for the day, I saw a bright patch of flowering heather at the base of another pine, so I went to have a closer look.

Closer view of the downy birch seedling amongst the flowering heather.

Closer view of the downy birch seedling amongst the flowering heather.

Downy birch seedling (Betula pubescens) amongst some heather (Calluna vulgaris) at the base of a Scots pine.

Downy birch seedling (Betula pubescens) amongst some heather (Calluna vulgaris) at the base of a Scots pine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The heather was just at the peak of its blossoming, with vivid purple flowers all over it.

The heather was just at the peak of its blossoming, with vivid purple flowers all over.

 

 

Another close up view of the massed blossoms of the heather.

Another close up view of the massed blossoms of the heather.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Heather in blossom with bracken changing colour and a group of Scots pines behind.

Heather in blossom with bracken changing colour and a group of Scots pines behind.

Unlike the heather elsewhere in the woodland, this patch didn’t appear to have been grazed. This was because it was growing next to the base of a Scots pine which had the upturned root plate of a fallen birch tree next to it, and that made it relatively inaccessible to the deer. It was scenes like this that I had been hoping to encounter on this trip, so I was very pleased to find this beautiful clump of heather in full bloom.

Walking further into the woodland, I came across some other patches of larger heather plants, also similarly in abundant blossom. Their lilac shades made an attractive colour combination with the bracken, which was changing from its summer green hue to its bright yellow of early autumn, before turning brown and dying back in the winter. This is the time of year when I can really appreciate bracken, as it can be very difficult to walk through at its height in the summer, especially when it’s taller than me, and it’s also notorious for harbouring deer ticks.

The bracken fronds change colour at slightly different rates to each other, as illustrated by the two in the foreground of tis image.

The bracken fronds change colour at slightly different rates to each other, as illustrated by the two in the foreground of tis image.

The bracken here though was quite small in size, most likely because the canopy of the pines above was restricting its growth due to the limited amount of light reaching the forest floor underneath.

Ground level view of the heather and bracken, with a stand of Scots pines behind.

Ground level view of the heather and bracken, with a stand of Scots pines behind.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Growing on a hummocky slope, this patch of heather must have been less accessible to the deer, as it was larger and less suppressed by grazing than those on flatter ground nearby.

Growing on a hummocky slope, this patch of heather must have been less accessible to the deer, as it was larger and less suppressed by grazing than those on flatter ground nearby.

The bracken and heather combined to create a colourful understory in the forest, and this was augmented in some areas by blaeberries beginning to change colour as well, especially at the base of some of the Scots pines.

The leaves of the blaeberries at the base of this pine were just beginning to turn their autumnal colours of red and yellow, before being shed for the winter.

The leaves of the blaeberries at the base of this pine were just beginning to turn their autumnal colours of red and yellow, before being shed for the winter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These bright orange fungi were fruiting on an exposed piece of pine root.

These bright orange fungi were fruiting on an exposed piece of pine root.

As I continued to walk around amongst the old pines, a small area of bright reddish-orange colour caught my eye on the forest floor. Looking down, I saw it was some small fungi that had emerged from a piece of pine root that was exposed on the ground. The colour was slightly unusual, and I didn’t recognise the species. However when I sent the photos to Liz Holden she replied that they were the yellow stagshorn fungus (Calocera viscosa). I know that species and have photographed it before, but have only seen it when it is yellow. Liz said that it had turned this darker orange colour because it was dry, and had also become somewhat shrivelled for the same reason, which explains why I didn’t recognise it.

Another view of the large holly tree (Ilex aquifolium), in the top left of this photograph.

Another view of the large holly tree (Ilex aquifolium), in the top left of this photograph.

In another part of the woodland I was surprised, and delighted, to find a large holly tree (Ilex aquifolium) amongst the pines.

The large holly tree (Ilex aquifolium) in the middle of this photograph was an unexpected discovery.

The large holly tree (Ilex aquifolium) in the middle of this photograph was an unexpected discovery.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Holly is relatively rare in the native pinewoods, although it was almost certainly more abundant in the past. Despite its prickly leaves, deer find it quite palatable, and it has suffered from overgrazing of its seedlings, which has led to its loss from many woodlands.

The bark of this downy birch was supporting many crustose lichens - those that grow flush on their substrate (the birch's bark in this case).

The bark of this downy birch was supporting many crustose lichens – those that grow flush on their substrate (ie. the  bark).

Soon afterwards I came upon some downy birches (Betula pubescens) in amongst the pines. They were growing in an area of hummocks, with patches of blaeberries and moss scattered between clumps of heather, making another visually pleasing tableau.

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Downy birches (Betula pubescens) growing in a hummocky part of the woodland.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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This patch of heather in the fullness of flowering made for a fitting farewell to my day at Inchvuilt Wood.

By this time it was late in the afternoon, and I had to begin the long walk back to my car, as there’s a gate across the road at the entrance to Strathfarrar and it would soon be locked for the night.

Photographing heather flowering in the pinewoods like this had been my main goal for the day.

Photographing heather flowering in the pinewoods like this had been my main goal for the day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The midges (Culicoides impunctatus) were also getting quite bad, so I took a quick couple of final images of the heather flowering amongst the trees, and then headed for home – it had been another deeply satisfying day out in the Caledonian Forest.

 

2 Responses to Return to Inchvuilt Wood

  1. Alan says:

    I was enjoying my virtual walk through paradise until you went and mention the midges 🙂
    Beautiful photography as always!

    • Hi Alan,

      Many thanks for your appreciation of my photography. We’ve had a couple of cold clear nights over the week-end, with frost in many Highland glens, so the midges are gone now, you’ll be glad to know!

      With best wishes, Alan

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